With New Journalist Syndicate President, Hopes for a Profession in Transition

Journalist Syndicate elections Bora S. Kamel.jpg

The Egyptian journalist syndicate headquarters is a notable space of contestation between journalists, politicians, and the public. Founded in 1941 and located in downtown Cairo near many of Egypt’s main newspaper headquarters, the syndicate’s broad front steps and large halls have born witness to press conferences and protests concerning the country’s developments in the last two years. 

On Friday March 15th – in an election framed by commentators in the Egyptian news as a harbinger of the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity in media and labor institutions – union members gathered and elected a noted Brotherhood critic, Diaa Rashwan, head of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, as the new syndicate President. Rashwan, a Nasserist and early signatory of the anti-Mubarak kifaya manifesto, won with 1280 votes over five opponents. His main challenger, Al Ahram Managing Director Abdel Mohsen Salama, was considered the government’s candidate. The syndicate also elected six of twelve board members, and passed several mid-term measures.

“Journalist Elections: An opposition Leader and the Board without the Brotherhood,” read a headline below the fold on the front page of the private-newspaper Al Masry Al Youm on Sunday.

Rashwan, in a statement to the private newspaper Al Shorouk after his win, promised to “restore the union from the hands of the ruling regime.” In other interviews in the Arabic press, he condemned the deaths of journalists al-Hussein Abu Deif, an Al-Fagr reporter killed during clashes in December at the Presidential palace, and Ahmed Mahmoud, the first journalist killed during the 18 day uprising. He also echoed key syndicate concerns, such as the rejection of new Constitutional clauses that infringed upon the freedom of the press.

Immediately following the elections, in which less than half of the syndicate’s 6,000 members voted, the local Arabic press published articles rehashing statements from prominent journalists and politicians expressing their confidence in Rashwan as an independent reformer. In print coverage in the following days, private Arabic papers framed Rashwan’s win as a significant sign of press empowerment in Egypt and a direct response to the Brotherhood-led government and politicization under the previous head, Mamdouh Waly, CEO of state-run Al Ahram newspaper and a Brotherhood member.

A Syndicate in Transition?

Beyond the political rhetoric, however, the elections – plagued by internal disagreements and poor participation numbers – are reflective of the problems and prospects facing the journalism field itself, as both the new and old generations of journalists struggle to define their place in a post-Mubarak Egypt. In an age of political and digital revolutions, for journalists the syndicate faces challenges both as a political body in a transitioning state and as a professional body trying to represent a fast-changing field.

“I hope that the press syndicate becomes inclined toward servicing journalists. For years each camp used it for its interests and it was not for journalists,” Doreya Malatawy, a journalist in state magazine Sabah Al-Kheir, told the Egypt Independent.

For Syndicate members the elections came at a tenuous time. In the last two years, on the one hand, many Egyptian journalists have flourished amidst reduced repression and a renewed sense of freedom and creativity in the country. Many media institutions have undergone technological developments, with a new generation of innovative media professionals working to pioneer new news models.

But the syndicate has also been rocked by political disagreements and infighting that have limited the body’s ability to address and adapt to the problems facing journalists. Two years in, the continued violence against the press, closures and cuts in news organizations, poor pay and professional resources, controversial arrests related to the press, and the fear of increasing government reach into Egyptian media remain persisting pressures.

“I think that the syndicate is a bit of a dinosaur as is the whole state owned press," said Dr. Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert and Professor at George Washington University. "That said, the syndicate has some real political influence, especially in the state owned sector and the constitution provides for exclusive representation for each sector by a single syndicate."

In the weeks before the elections, candidates passed through newsrooms handing out campaign literature. But of the thousands of journalists in Egypt, the syndicate has only 6,000 members and, according to (often subjective) regulations, they must be employed by print publications. This condition leaves an array of media professionals in an increasingly multi-media field unrepresented. The syndicate body and representative also remain largely dominated by the state-owned presses, despite an increasing diversity of private media.  

Prominent journalist Yehia Qallash is part of a cadre of members who have been fighting for an independent syndicate for decades. He described the low turnout as a reflection of the growing discontent among journalists with what seemed the same old system—a sentiment felt by many more generally nationwide. Many instead chose to opt out of elections, he said, rather than vote for candidates whose rhetoric did not reflect their needs.

“The heart of the slogan of the revolution was freedom,” said Qallah. “And in our opinion, the opinion of the Egyptian people, that means the right to a free and independent press. But what happened in the last two years is that this slogan has not been achieved on the ground." He added. “The journalists expressed this by not voting. The speech of the candidates did not pertain to the problems of journalists, especially after the revolution.”

According to another board member and long-time activist, Hisham Younis, the syndicates priorities include reform of membership and salary policies, and the removal of laws put in place under Mubarak, such as defamation laws, that limit press freedoms. He stressed the need to end the polarization that paralyzed the syndicate under Waly. Of all the candidates, Younis felt that Rashwan was the more reform minded leader and in sync with the sentiments of the board. “The worst thing in the syndicate is the polarized condition,” he said with conviction. “And it has to stop.”

Since the revolution, a series of disputes—sometimes including fists—have divided the Syndicate. In December 2011, Syndicate President Makram Mohamed Ahmed resigned, citing poor health. At the time, members were calling for his resignation, angry over the Syndicate’s lack of action over press violations incurred during the revolution. In the first post-revolution vote, Waly beat out Qallash by a vote of 1646 to 1399, with 277 votes found to be void.

Mid-term elections were originally scheduled for two years later in October 2013. According to news reports, however, discontent with Waly led the largely left-leaning board members to push for elections in March in accordance with the 1970 Syndicate law, rather than a Mubarak era law that regulated elections in 2011. Amongst a number of disputes in December, internal controversy erupted when Waly voted for the constitution, despite the Syndicate’s decision to withdraw from the constitutional assembly to protest threats to freedom of the press and expression. Two court rulings ensued before elections were confirmed for March.

An attempt to hold elections on March 1st began much like March 15th, but concluded prematurely when the union failed to reach the necessary quorum of fifty plus one of members, by 3pm. The day was also mired by an assault by supporters of al-Hussinei Abu Deif on Waly as he tried to leave the headquarters. A large crowd surrounded him yelling slogans critical of his handling of the death of journalists, and other revolutionary slogans, Waly was reportedly escorted out of the mob to safety, and did not attend the second round of elections.

The morning of the March 15th election, the Syndicate headquarters stood adorned with election posters with the faces of contemplative-looking candidates. A large tent loomed outside lined with Egyptian tapestries and election literature. Candidates and members warmly greeted each other as prominent Egyptian journalists came through. Moments before 3PM, when new voting quota of 25 percent plus one was reached, the street was littered with the candidates’ advertisements.

In a symbolic move, Rasha Azzab, Al-Fagr newspaper journalist known for her activism, told Egypt Independent that she would boycott the elections, dissatisfied with the institutional affiliations of both candidates. “I will write the name of al-Husseini Abu Deif in the ballot,” she said.

Moving forward, commentators say it will be important to follow whether in the current climate Rashwan will be able to go beyond the rhetoric and better represent and protect Egyptian journalists. But an interesting point to also consider is the story of the syndicate that the local Arabic press is telling.

In a two-page spread entitled “The Power and the Press” in Monday’s print edition of the privately-owned Al Youm Al Saba’a, the paper published several articles recapping the elections and chronicling the syndicate’s history fighting for an independent press. "The cries for the fall of the rule of the [Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme] Guide at the union building renews memories of the journalists’ resistance to the policies of Sadat and Mubarak,” ran the headline of a story on the syndicate’s history as an independent institution. In the same article, the writer also stressed that the struggle of journalists has not just been for their own professional issues, but also “a battle for the sake of the country.”

Amidst changing political and media scenes, the syndicate remains one sphere for journalists to contest what this theory means in practice. 

Miriam Berger is a freelance-writer and Fulbright and CASA Fellow in Egypt researching on Egyptian print media. 

Photo: Bora S. Kamel

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